But not all Texotics are there to be hunted. Many ranchers take pride in providing new habitats for species threatened with oblivion on their native grounds. Experiments are under way with the African rhinoceros, whose extinction is imminent because of heavy poaching (an 18-inch rhino horn can bring up to $30,000 from the aphrodisiac industry in Asia or entrepreneurs in Yemen who use them for dagger handles). But rhinos are fence busters—and ferocious to boot—so they must be kept penned. As a result, most of those imported to Texas have died. Greater success has been achieved with the P�re David's deer, a swamp-dweller about the size of a small American elk. P�re David's deer had died out in its native China, but zoo specimens in England kept the gene pool alive, and now the species thrives on half a dozen Texas ranches. Other creatures on the brink of extinction that have a second chance in these surroundings include the scimitar-horned oryx (from war-torn Chad), the addax (from the Sahara), Indian barasingha deer, Persian gazelles and red sheep, Nile lechwe and the mountain nyala from Ethiopia. In fact, only six of the Texotics species are hunted regularly for profit. Most abundant and therefore the most popular quarry is the axis deer of India and Sri Lanka. Slightly bigger than most whitetails, it has a beautifully spotted russet coat and three-pronged antlers that can sweep to nearly three feet in length. There were 38,035 axis deer by the last count—nearly a third of the Texotics total. Blackbuck, 18,789 of them, are next most abundant, followed by 15,394 nilgai (rarely hunted because of their small horns). Aoudad (14,651), fallow deer (10,507) and sika (7,956) round out the top six. The remaining 14,869 animals—called "superexotics" by the ranchers—comprise fully 53 species, including everything from the endangered black rhino to small but spectacular herds of giraffe.
Nobody shoots giraffes anymore, not even in Texas. Yet you can find a head mount of a bull giraffe in the showroom of Woodbury's studio in Ingram, Texas, which does most of the taxidermy work for the YO. Jimmy Dieringer, 29, the prot�g� of a legendary taxidermist and sculptor named Lloyd Woodbury, explains that 10 giraffes owned by Texas A & M died of the cold three winters ago on the Mecom Ranch in South Texas, where they were being held pending the construction of the $1.5 million Wildlife and Exotic Animal Center to be associated with the university's College of Veterinary Medicine. Dieringer and Woodbury raced to the Mecom Ranch as fast as they could, but managed to salvage only giraffe skin. Yet the mount they produced, which dominates their elegant studio, is a masterwork of the taxidermist's art.
As might be anticipated, the Texotics phenomenon has bred almost as many opponents as the animals it has saved. Some ecologists argue that any tampering with nature is anathema. They point to the introduction of starlings, house sparrows, carp and rats to North America as examples of the import taking over the habitat of native species.
Texas parks and wildlife biologists fear that such exotics as axis deer and aoudad will ultimately out-compete native deer for forage and perhaps damage rangeland used by cattle, sheep and goats. Biologists William E. Armstrong and Donnie E. Harmel fenced six sika and six whitetails on 96 acres in the Hill Country's Kerr Wildlife Management Area. In another 96-acre pasture were six whitetails with no competition. After nine years, there were 62 sika in the first pasture but no whitetails at all. In the other pasture, the original six whitetails had increased to 14.
"Our range could be in a lot of trouble," says Armstrong. "We need to go in there and correct the situation. The exotics are here. They're a fact of life. There is no reason we cannot have axis or sika, but we cannot have them in the numbers people want. Landowners will have to make a conscious decision about how many of each animal they will have."
Many of the earlier introductions—from Chinese ring-necked pheasant, Eurasian chukar partridge and their Hungarian cousins to German brown trout—have benefited both the economy and quality of American life. But until the introduction of Texotics half a century ago and their rapid escalation in the past decade, few mammalian imports had been tried. (The European or "Russian" boar was one that took.) Today, in Texas at least, the exotics have established a hoof-hold unique in North America. To get a feeling for what they mean—or might bode for the future—photographer Bill Eppridge and I spent 2� weeks hunting and photographing Texotics on a variety of Hill Country ranches. This is what we saw and felt.
Buttery's Ranch, better known as the Bar-O, near Llano in the northern reaches of the Hill Country, is a rugged sprawl of cactus-spiked plains and granite outcroppings cut through with sand rivers reminiscent of East Africa. Oaks and mesquite stud the plains like Texas versions of African baobab and acacia trees and conceal herds of game far spookier than anything Eppridge or I had seen in our African travels. Apart from the small-bodied but big-antlered white-tails that flag from every thicket, there are aoudad, axis, sika and fallow deer along with the animal I particularly wanted to hunt—mouflon sheep. The mouflon, originally from the islands of Corsica and Sardinia but now established throughout central and southern Europe, is among the smallest of the world's wild sheep. But like most of its cousins, it is fast, wily and as keen-sighted as a man with 10-power binoculars, and it prefers to hang out in rugged, ankle-busting country.
We chose to begin our Texas safari at the Bar-O because of the presence there of Finn Aagaard. Aagaard, 54, is a former white hunter and outfitter from Kenya, where I've made five safaris and Eppridge, two. Hard of hearing because of years of proximity to big-bore gunfire, Aagaard left Kenya with his family (wife Berit, sons Erik, 16, Harald, 14, and daughter Marit, 10) after a ban on hunting went into effect there nine years ago. Kenya-born, of Norwegian parents, he had grown up on a plantation near Nairobi, in what used to be magnificent game country. " Texas isn't quite the same," he says laconically, "but then nothing is. Not even Kenya today."
The Aagaards live in an echoing, 100-year-old "dog trot" ranch house—the architectural style, typical of the Hill Country, takes its name from the long center hallway dividing living and sleeping quarters—surrounded by a wire fence festooned with age-whitened antlers. A long, dark trophy hall is hung with horns and hides, some of them from Aagaard's safari days in Kenya. The skull of a cattle-killing lion Aagaard shot on his father's land rests on the mantel below the gleaming, black 42-inch horns of a Cape buffalo. "Not especially big," he admits, "but I took it entirely on my own. No trackers, no skinners, no help at all. I'm rather proud of it, I suppose."
That, of course, is the rub in guided hunts. A guide or professional hunter takes care of the best part of the hunt: learning the country, locating the good animals, taking you to where they might be found and telling you if the one in your binoculars is worth stalking. In Texas they call such an animal a "shooter."